In University Hall, there's a space known as “The Cage.” It's been there for years, and the worn down appearance of it certainly doesn't hide that fact. It gets cold in the winter, and stifling hot in the warmer days. There's nothing fancy about the gritty space, and it’s not exactly where you would expect one of the most successful Division I programs to train. But, before most people are awake, that's where the Virginia rowing team can be found as rowers set up their ergs and roll out a large speaker, getting ready for their first grueling workout of the day.
Ergs — which are indoor rowing machines — are how the team does a majority of their difficult workouts. They'll do anything on those machines from all out 2k tests to a long, steady, 20,000-meter piece. Physically, it engages various muscles and is a hybrid of cardio and strength. But if you ask almost any rower, the intense physical demands don't even compare to the mental battle.
Attached to the erg is a small monitor that tells you your splits, stroke rate, time and other relevant numbers. With all this information in front of you, you’re able to clearly see when you’re headed for a new personal record. However, that also means you’re able to clearly see when your pace starts to slow down. It takes an incredible amount of discipline, focus and willpower to not let a few bad strokes or a slower 500 meters become losing total control of the piece.
As if that isn’t enough of a challenge, the individualization of the rowing machine — which starkly contrasts how team-oriented the sport of rowing is — makes the workouts that much more trying.
But, Virginia never lets those those push-you-to-your-limit erg workouts become an isolating experience.
“Some teams will erg with everyone having individual headphones and I think that’s a really isolating practice,” said senior Anna Fairs, one of the team’s co-captains.
Rather than follow that custom, the Cavaliers all listen to music that blares from the same speaker, which is a small way that the team unifies the experience. They also add unity to erg workouts by interacting with each other when they can.
“We all sit next to each other in rows, so I can look at the girl next to me to help me get to a certain goal,” Fairs said. “So it’s like ‘you get to the 3000-meter mark,’ or ‘you get me there and I’ll get you to the next one.’ It’s that little bit of tradeoff and that little bit of speech that I think is really helpful.”
They’ll also shout out each other’s names during workouts as part of a ‘give energy, get energy’ theme that the team is framed by.
“For me it’s kind of yelling out to someone else, because it’s like if they’re going, then I’ll go. And other people might need the encouragement to hear their name,” said graduate student Ali Zwicker, the other captain for the season.
Both Fairs and Zwicker know the value of team unity, and as captains, they do everything they can to emphasize that.
“We wanted to create a culture where we were approachable and also where we were checking in on people everyday,” Zwicker said. “It’s not just the people going to NCAA’s that matters — it’s everybody.”
The Cavaliers try to incorporate teamwork into absolutely everything because it doesn’t just make everyone’s experience on the team more enjoyable — it also makes them a more successful team. And with 17 ACC Championships and two team National Championships, the program knows a thing or two about success. The program also has had nine individual boats win National Championships, and 24 players have earned First-Team All-American honors at least once in their career as a Cavalier.
The 17 ACC Championships in the conference’s 18-year history is just about as dominant as it gets.
But Virginia doesn’t let that success lead to complacency.
At the boathouse where the team goes when they’re practicing on the water, there's a sign that reads: “Nothing given, everything earned.” This sign doesn’t just serve as a reminder of an important mindset, it is something that is embodied in how the Cavaliers approach their training and their season.
“We don’t ever want to get complacent and have it be like because you have the V sabre on your chest, you’re going to win,” Fairs said.
This is especially important for Virginia because not only does complacency threaten improvement, but it also becomes problematic when many other schools are focused on finishing specifically ahead of Virginia.
“We have a target on our backs and in other team’s locker rooms, there are chalk boards with ‘what are your season’s goals?’ and they’ll have in bold ‘beat Virginia’ and I think that’s something that motivates us,” Fairs said. “We welcome the competition and we want close races because that helps prepare us for NCAAs. We don’t want to win every race by three boat lengths, that doesn’t help us.”
This year, that work ethic will go into the pursuit of putting together another successful season. However, it’s not just about winning ‘X’ amount of races or walking away with another conference championship that the Cavaliers focus on.
“We spoke as a team, and we talked about what we want our goals to be,” Zwicker said. “And they aren’t necessarily just win ACCs and come in this place for NCAAs. While those are all great things, we talked a lot about enjoying the process.”
Of course, they will always set those competitive goals that are rooted in results. But, by focusing on the process, the Cavaliers are focusing on the aspects of competition that are up to them to dictate.
“You can control the internal factors,” Fairs said. “You can be as good as you can possibly be so that when you sit on that start-way, you know that there is absolutely nothing I could’ve done to prepare myself better.”
“It’s basically having no regrets,” Zwicker added. “And if we give it our all and don’t make the A-final, it’s hard to be disappointed knowing we gave everything. So that’s why we’re more focused internally as opposed to we just want to get three boats in the A-Final. Yes, that’s a goal, but it’s also how are we getting there?”
Virginia has already begun the process of getting there with racing this season underway. They put together a solid performance at the Oak Ridge Invite and also added experience under their belts with a scrimmage against Duke. The Cavaliers will now continue to build off of those performances as they set their sites on bigger goals, and, as always, they’ll do so as a team.
“We have a very strong team in the fact that everyone is very strong-willed,” Fairs said. “And if they try something, they put their whole heart into it and I think that’s really key. You can have great ergs, and you can have great speed on the water, great technique and all of that, but if you don’t put your whole heart in it and jump in with two feet, then that doesn’t mean anything.”